Anti-hunger groups see promise in Biden-Harris ticket

With Democratic nominee Joe Biden’s running mate confirmed, anti-hunger advocates say the presidential ticket is well equipped to tackle an urgent concern: food insecurity. Sen. Kamala Harris has consistently pushed for bolstering the social safety net, notably calling for the 15-percent increase in SNAP benefits that experts say would significantly reduce hunger.

Lockdowns and economic tumult due to Covid-19 have sent food insecurity to record levels in this country, particularly for households with children. According to Feeding America, a nationwide food bank network, an additional 17.1 million people could face hunger this year, including nearly 7 million children. The implications are disproportionately dire for Black and Latino families, especially those in rural areas.

The situation stems in part from a policy failure, according to advocates. Republicans have rejected Democrats’ calls to increase SNAP, instead launching a $3-billion food relief program focused on distributions through food banks, an initiative beset by delays and malfunction.

“Congress has not used a tool from its playbook that we know works so well: increasing SNAP benefits by 15 percent across the board,” said Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach, director of the Institute of Policy Research at Northwestern University.

Advocates have praised both Biden’s and Harris’ attention to food security, an issue often overlooked in elections.

“I’m encouraged that Biden and Harris are even acknowledging the hunger crisis we’re experiencing,” said Shannon Maynard, executive director of the Congressional Hunger Center, a nonprofit that works with Congress on hunger issues. “Far too few candidates ever talk about hunger, and this is a time where we can’t avoid talking about it.”

Harris, a member of the Senate Budget Committee, has backed and spearheaded efforts to soften the economic blow of the pandemic. In April, she introduced a bill with Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand, a New York Democrat, and Vermont’s Bernie Sanders to boost SNAP by 15 percent and scale back work requirements. “No one in America should ever go hungry, especially during a public health crisis,” Harris said at the time.

In May, Harris, Sanders, and Sen. Ed Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat, co-sponsored a bill to provide $2,000 monthly payments to Americans for the duration of the pandemic. During her 2020 presidential campaign, Harris outlined a $100-billion package for rural America, pledging to support the SNAP for Kids Act, which would raise food assistance for school-age children by $42 a month — a 27-percent increase — and expand funding for the Healthy Foods Financing Initiative, which improves access to fresh produce, particularly in rural areas, where grocery stores are often sparse.

Biden, for his part, also supports a 15-percent SNAP increase, and he has urged President Trump to work with Congress to pass the FEMA Empowering Essential Deliveries (FEED) Act — introduced by Harris and Chef José Andrés, with bipartisan support — which authorizes the federal government to fully fund state and local partnerships with restaurants and nonprofits that would prepare and distribute meals to vulnerable groups.

In May, Biden hosted a town hall on food insecurity with Andrés, where he blamed the hunger crisis not on food shortages but on “a leadership problem,” and called on the administration to appoint a “food system coordinator” to identify hunger hotspots.

Biden’s record as vice president also bodes well for his approach to hunger, according to Joel Berg, CEO of Hunger Free America. “He doesn’t get enough credit for his role in the economic recovery,” he said, noting the relationship between poverty and food insecurity. “When people aren’t hungry, when they don’t have medical debt or health problems, it means they can work more.”

Said Schanzenbach, “One thing that’s clear is that Biden and Harris believe in evidence. And there’s overwhelming evidence that policy levers like SNAP work, and a Biden administration would listen to that and make decisions accordingly.”